Although there are stories of headless horsemen in other areas of the good ol’ USA, the most famous is of course that fictional one–the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. There is some evidence to indicate that the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Washington Irving (1783-1859) may have based his spookily hilarious tale of a superstitious schoolmaster, a flirtatious heiress, a jealous suitor and the threatening figure of a Hessian soldier seeking the head he lost in battle on people of his acquaintance (he actually knew a man with the preposterous name Ichabod Crane) and on the folklore of the Dutchmen who clung to the old ways of their colonial settlements in upstate New York even after, successively, the British, then the Americans, took possession of the land.
However, tales of headless horsemen are far more common in British folklore than in American. In Britain and Scotland, decapitation was a legal form of execution for certain crimes until 1746, the last man beheaded in England being Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, for treason; he had participated in “the ’45,” the final rebellion of supporters of the royal House of Stuart against the House of Hanover, who have ruled England (now as the House of Windsor) since 1714.
My favorite headless horseman story is of the luckless Ewan of the Little Head. Ewan was the heir of a chief of Highland Scotland’s Clan MacLaine, based in the Lochbuie district, in the sixteenth century. For reasons lost to history, Ewan and his father fell out, and the rift was such that, in 1538, armed supporters led by the two men rode into battle to settle matters. In a bloody fight to the death, Ewan was beheaded by one of his father’s retainers. And, from that time on into the twentieth century, Ewan MacLaine rides again, whenever one of the Lochbuie MacLaines is about to die.
According to the TIME-LIFE book PHANTOM ENCOUNTERS (1988), Ewan himself knew he would die in that battle five centuries ago. The night before his death, he went for a walk along a river near his home and there encountered a Scots version of the Irish banshee. Unlike her lovely Irish counterpart, this Scots death omen, known as the Little Washerwoman by the Ford, is quite frighteningly ugly. She appears on the night before great battles, washing blood from the shirts of those who will die on the morrow. When Ewan MacLaine met her, he asked her if his shirt was among the ones she worked over with such ghoulish industry, and she told him it was. But, she added, he might avoid his fate if, in the morning, his wife served butter with breakfast, unprompted by him.
Whether because she was frightened witless by the prospect of her husband going into battle or because she was too thick with sleep to think properly or because she was a lousy cook, Ewan’s wife did not serve butter in the morning. And so Ewan ate dry toast, and rode forth to his death–and into legend as a death omen.